Let’s talk turkey.
Most associate North America’s largest game bird with Thanksgiving—and therein lies the problem: There aren’t enough birds in the Brandywine Valley and southern Chester County for the Pennsylvania Game Commission to sanction fall hunting. This year’s season runs April 27 to May 31, which is why cage-raised domestic birds typically end up on holiday tables in this area.
Tom Shaw lives near West Grove in rural southern Chester County. “I’ve lived here my whole life, but I can’t hunt here,” he laments.
So every fall, Shaw heads to Turkey Trot Acres Hunting Lodge in Candor, N.Y., west of Binghamton. “Even in the spring, I can’t say I’ve ever heard a gobbler [male] around here, so it’s smart of the state not to have a fall season,” he says.
Prior to European settlement, the North American wild turkey was abundant. But by the early 1900s, unregulated hunting and habitat loss due to widespread logging and farming reduced populations to near extinction in some areas. Early hunters’ livelihoods depended on them—and as a flock species, they’re easy targets.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Mary Jo Casalena is the biologist responsible for managing and researching the state’s wild turkey and its restoration. She estimates that there were as few as 3,000 of them statewide until hunting organizations pushed for conservation legislation. Initial efforts were based on the ill-informed release of pen-reared turkeys. More successful were techniques that allowed experts to trap and transfer wild turkeys to unoccupied but worthy habitats. Beginning in 1973, aggressive trap-and-transfer programs restored wild turkey populations here and in Canada. By the early 2000s, their numbers had recovered to about 7 million in all states but Alaska. In Pennsylvania, the population peaked at 280,000 in 1999-2000. Between 2015 and 2017, the official total was 219,000.
Anecdotally, though, the Eastern wild turkey seems pretty scarce here, despite a second trap-and-transfer effort that relocated 515 birds 16 years ago. “The Southeastern part of the state is too broken in landscape and habitat because of development, industry and agriculture, which limits the birds’ ability to emigrate,” says Casalena. “There were viable areas, but flocks weren’t getting there on their own. We didn’t want to create a nuisance turkey population.”
Steve “Jake” Jenkinson has never seen a wild turkey during his tenure as the property manager for Paradise Farm Camps in West Bradford and Paradise Valley Nature Area in East Bradford and Caln townships. That’s 600 acres, and not one sighting.
State game warden and wildlife conservationist Keith Mullin, who oversees the southern half of Chester County, participated in the most recent turkey release, which involved three Brandywine Valley locations: Wolf’s Hollow, the Laurels and Octoraro Lake. “Opening day of the last buck season, I broke up a [turkey] flock just outside Parkesburg, five miles east of the Wolf’s Hollow release site, so they’re out there and reproducing,” he says. “The point of the program is to speed up the natural dispersal of the population. The goal is to allow hunting in all available seasons.”
Chester County’s last open fall turkey-hunting season was in 2000. Eliminating it helps save hens for nesting the following spring, so hunting can begin the Saturday closest to May 1, lasting all month except for Sundays.
Shaw, for one, isn’t convinced that the repopulation effort is working. “If the state puts 10 birds out there, it’s still the same 10 birds,” he says. “The land is too open. There are just not enough long, large woodlots to give the protection and shelter turkeys need. While farmers are growing corn, their harvesting techniques leave nothing in the field.
“Young birds also need insects as protein to grow feathers. But farmers spray, so there are no bugs.”
Right now, foxhunters don’t have to worry about a fall turkey season ruining their fun. But if open land is managed for a higher fox population, those predators could be detrimental to the wild turkey. Then again, so are raccoons, possum, hawks, owls and coyotes. “They don’t have an easy road of it,” says Mullin.
And pen-fed wild turkeys aren’t a viable option. Once raised in captivity, any animal loses its wariness, creating a nuisance—one that can be aggressive, especially during mating season. Dominant males have been known to chase mailmen and children or roost overnight on a car, looking to be fed in the morning. “They may look like wild birds, but they won’t behave like wild birds,” Mullin says. “If a wild turkey sees you moving, he’s gone. These other birds will peck on your home’s glass sliding door.”
Mullin recently responded to an incident where birds were strutting in front of Avon Grove Intermediate School. They surrounded him, expecting to get fed. He captured them and put them down.
Raising turkeys in a pen requires a permit. Before their release—which is frowned upon—they must be tested for Salmonella pullorum, or it’s grounds for a citation.
For hunters, coming in contact with an honest-to-goodness wild turkey can be exciting—interacting with it, calling it closer, studying its behavior. “With a spring hunt, you’re back in nature as nature’s coming back to life,” says Casalena. “The sun is rising. The birds are calling. You hear gobblers rattling, and you see them fan out in an elaborate display. But then it’s frustrating because they don’t come in.”
To help, report wild turkey sightings every August at: pgcdatacollection.pa.gov/ TurkeyBroodSurvey.